What’s So Great About Economic Growth?
We’ve always heard it trumpeted as a great measure of success for a nation—a high GDP in relationship to the population as an indicator of prosperity or a low one indicating scarcity—the economic growth rate. The forecast for economic growth is used by investors to determine when to buy and when to sell. The relationship between the markets and the reality of what’s happening is a chaotic one at best as each influences the other causing changes in behaviors which in turn cause new forecasts and so forth so that the actual growth fluctuates randomly, as do the markets. Due to so many unknowns and complexities, we can never predict the economic future with any certainty like we can with physics and astronomy, for example. Yet we can measure economic growth over a given period that has passed and spot a trend in the general direction it is moving so we must admit it is a measurable entity. However, what can we really conclude about its value to us? At what cost did we have growth? What was sacrificed? What was ruined? Who died? Who prospered? Who experienced the growth?
The whole purpose of an economy is to support a life worth living.
In general, measuring a society’s success by GDP is a half-assed measure at best and a completely deficient and wrong-minded one, in all honesty. Honesty and Truth should always be our guide and to be honest and truthful one must not leave out important details. So I ask the reader to do a more wholesome appraisal of society and also include the following:
- How happy and free are the people?
- How much poverty exists?
- How much borrowing has been done?
- How many suicides are taking place?
- How much violence and crime?
- How much mental illness?
- How much poor health and insomnia?
- How educated are the people?
- How creative and inspired are the people?
- How beautiful are the surroundings?
- How many toxins were released?
- How has the environment/biosphere been impacted?
- How sustainable is the rate of environmental degradation?
You see, it is easy to sweep these inconvenient measures under the rug when all you care about is GDP because GDP can be increased at the expense of all of these factors. Why? Because it it often more profitable to ignore such considerations because it can be more onerous to take heed and care for such things while “doing business.” If my business can dump its toxic byproducts in a local waterway or into the atmosphere, it saves me money and my productivity increases as well as my profits. If I can pay my workers less or provide less than optimal working conditions, my profits increase—for now. We found early on how profitable it was to entirely deprive people of freedom and force them to work as slaves. To some degree, we are all enslaved in a modern rat race where those in power call all the shots on how we must live.
If thousands of businesses are allowed to operate unfettered in pursuit of growth, society becomes disgruntled, dissatisfied, angry, depressed, anxious and then mental health issues ensue along with a rise in crime and violence and ugliness multiplies. It all ties together. Such growth always comes at a great cost to the host, in this case, society. Yet we often hear politicians tout economic growth as some sort of magical measurement of how we are doing as a society which couldn’t be further from the truth. We are on the verge of a catastrophic Climate Crisis that can make the Great Pandemic of 2020 seem like the good ole days, but we remain obsessed with economic growth, unemployment and trade deficits as our primary measures, even though the very roots of this Climate Crisis are this misguided pursuit of economic growth in itself.
Living right may cost more initially but pays much higher dividends than mere money.
Let us learn from Nature. Take yourself, for example. You were born and were pretty small and then you grew up and you STOPPED growing, thank God! Just like with every other creature and plant, they grow to a point and then either grow very, very slowly or remain at a certain size and operate happily at that size and in accordance with Nature. Yet we expect our businesses to grow to absurd levels and maintain untenable rates of growth year over year at all expense to the above considerations. This is the greatest logical and moral fallacy ever perpetrated and it is anathema to Nature, as we can plainly see.
Why use Nature as a template? Yes, humans, as smart as we think we are, still operate within Nature’s confines. Our planet, the only habitable one for lightyears around, is a Closed System. If you reduced it to the size of a basketball, all life would exist in a VERY thin layer of paint on the surface. This is our starting position for all human activities, including all businesses. All business operates within that layer of paint called the Biosphere (except a very few that have nascent ventures in space, though headquarters remain Earthbound). One could spend a lifetime learning about how this miraculous layer came to being and got itself to a point of beauty, harmony and perfection—and delicacy. It is VERY delicate. Now, we being so tiny in relationship to it, can easily miss this fact and certainly, from our perspective, it seems anything but delicate. It’s huge, it’s rough, it has mountains, gigantic oceans, hurricanes and tornadoes and vast expanses of land. But take a picture from Mars of the Earth and it pretty much looks like Venus looks to us—a bright dot in the sky. We live on a dot. All History unfolds for us on that dot. So that makes us very small indeed.
But Nature teaches us much more than where we fit in. It teaches us how to survive, thrive and live our best lives. It too has fits of uncontrolled growth. What is cancer but an uncontrolled growth within our bodies? Algae blooms can run amuck and choke off oxygen supplies in water and create a dead zone. Pestilence can spread like wildfire and unchecked can destroy large populations of all types, including humans as we’ve learned so painfully. But us humans have an even greater impact than any pest or algae could ever dream up and we are relentless.
We are so clever. We can mine ores, drill for oil anywhere, refine chemicals, create metals and engines and burn said chemicals in these engines to move us around the world by land, sea and air, heat and light our homes, cook our food and make more of everything. We are very good at making things, and on an industrial scale. So much so that we have amplified our impact well past all other creatures to the point where we are now causing a mass extinction, massive deforestation and atmospheric changes on a global scale. Our chemistry is so advanced we can make materials that Nature can’t even break down, except by volcanic or supernova actions. While it may seem that we are operating outside of, and above Nature for now, Nature always gets the last laugh and never blinks. We stick our thumb in Nature’s eye at our great peril. But that’s just one of our BIG problems.
Because we are so smart and socially aware and often possess wonderful traits of caring and loving each other, thinking, emoting and develop complex social structures from families to nations, we also can be hurt greatly on a mental/emotional level. We are delicate too—physically and mentally. Overall, individuals notwithstanding, we are mean, careless creatures. Mean to each other, mean to animals and mean to our Mother Earth. I’m talking vicious, despicable behavior as a species. We are the Earth’s Villains. We are rogue criminals despoiling Nature with abandon, stealing left and right from our fellow humans, making life unbearable for Earth’s cohabitants and largely, ourselves. Moreover, we have become incapable of comprehending our impact on the future and have become shortsighted consumers, living for today and throwing caution to the wind. Unfortunately for us, Nature is not forgiving. She exacts Her toll and gladly does a reset any time She wants and on the time scale She sees fit. This little Coronavirus is just one of Her many tricks and it is not nearly Her last or biggest.
Consider the Sun for a moment. We love our Sun, the giver of light and warmth. The engine that powers all life on Earth from a safe and perfect 93 million miles away (very close in Cosmic terms). Basking in the Sun’s glory we go about our days, driving to and fro, having barbecues and beach days. Even our gasoline is Tincture of Sunlight, extracted from fossilized hydrocarbons that were photosynthesized eons ago. The Sun grows our food. The Sun controls our weather. The Sun makes EVERYTHING possible. All respect to the Sun, our friendly thermonuclear furnace! The Earth has been basking in this light and warmth for WAY longer than humans have existed—billions of years. And it took these billions of years to come to a point of delicate balance between baking and freezing—the point at which life is possible and stable enough to support civilization. The Sun doesn’t do economics. It gives economics something to work with.
By losing touch with Nature, the Earth and the Sun, we have set ourselves apart and queued ourselves up for ultimate destruction. Millions and millions of creatures have come and gone over the Eons and we will be just another one of these fossilized records much sooner than we need to be if we don’t start a less criminal lifestyle as a species. But, because of our minds, we will be painfully aware of our demise. We have even been warned by our brightest and best minds, our most caring people, to act.
It is our minds and hearts that must be tended too first, not our businesses. Sure, business can absolutely be worthy and performed ethically and with love. We can learn to be holistic in our approach and stop sweeping everything under the rug of extinction. But until the 13 items above become our measures of success, we will be farther and farther from successfulness—we will be abject failures.
We may just be a success and worthy of praise if we can do things with better, more meaningful priorities than mere economics:
- Secure freedoms for all and make people much happier in general
- Eliminate poverty
- Stop burdening future generations with economic and ecological debt
- Reduce suicides by creating a compassionate society
- Reduce violence and crime to a minimum
- Create mental wealth and well-being for the masses
- Eat healthy foods and keep fit and sleep well
- Make education from earliest ages through college a priority, especially life skills such as civility, generosity and respect of others
- Encourage the arts and creativity at all ages and appreciation for beauty
- Make it a mission to clean up neighborhoods, improve signage and beautiful architecture to fight urban blight and far fewer wires everywhere
- Stop polluting the land, water and sky, including noise and light pollution
- Leave the World in the same shape we found it, or better
- Come into balance with Nature so a wonderful life can be sustained for many centuries
If all this means that economic growth hits a point of homeostasis and stability, then so be it. If we were so lucky as to become wise enough to achieve such things we would be in absolute amazement that we ever thought economic growth was a measure of anything truly valuable to Life on Earth.
Many of these metrics already exist but I thought I’d list them here, for good measure, pun intended. Methods vary and those listed below are a mix of statistics and actual measures but we should find a way to create a combined, weighted score in a simple number or two that shows how we are doing overall, including economically:
- Happiness Index
- Poverty Index
- Debt clocks
- Suicide rates
- Crime rates and statistics
- Mental health statistics
- Obesity and other data
- Educational data
- Creativity index
- Urban blight measurement
- Pollution rankings
- Environmental Performance Index
- Environmental Sustainability Index
Currently, I generously give us a score of 35 out of 100.